Internal dynamics before the August–September 2007 demonstrations

Since the 2004 sacking of General Khin Nyunt and the military intelligence officials who made up his power base, power has been concentrated in the hands of the two top generals, who are hardliners in dealing with the international community. Without Khin Nyunt there to suggest a different approach, the hardliners have restricted the role of the international community in encouraging a gradual democratic change and in alleviating social problems. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been monitoring the condition of political prisoners, has not been able to access the country’s prisons since 2005. Some health-related non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Global Fund and Médecins sans Frontières, left the country in 2005 because of government-imposed restrictions on their access to project areas.[8] In 2006, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, which had been trying to facilitate a dialogue between the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi, had to leave the country. In 2006, the SPDC announced new guidelines for international NGOs, which placed several new restrictions on their activities.

The purge of Khin Nyunt also resulted in greater economic mismanagement without any checks and balances from the military intelligence. As a result, in 2005, gasoline prices were increased eightfold. In 2006, the salaries of civil servants were also increased by a factor of five to 12 times, with military officers receiving the highest increases. They did not feel the effects of the diesel-price increase so much, but ordinary citizens whose salaries were not increased were hurt. The government overspent its budget to cover for the sudden and huge salary increase. At the same time, it sped up its plan to move the capital to Naypyitaw in late 2005 in order to isolate itself from the people and the international community, partly on the advice of astrologers, in order to maintain its power. Since the construction of new buildings was not complete, they spent a huge amount of money to expedite the completion of the construction projects. In addition, the construction of residences for the top generals began in Pyin Oo Lwin. As a result, the government had little money left to continue subsidising fuel prices while international fuel prices continued to rise. Rather than increasing the fuel price gradually, as other countries had, the SPDC increased the price fivefold overnight in August 2007. Consequently, thousands of people took to the streets in August and September because of their difficulties making ends meet. The junta, however, responded by cracking down violently on the peaceful demonstrations.

Since the purge of General Khin Nyunt, the junta has made a number of attempts to discredit him and to improve its own image. An indirect result of this was that there were opportunities for some non-violent actions by activists and anti-corruption efforts by a faction in the military. A few months after the 2004 purge of Khin Nyunt, the junta released several imprisoned 1988-generation student leaders, including Min Ko Naing, who was considered to be the second-most popular leader after Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta claimed that military intelligence had treated these prisoners incorrectly and detained some of them longer than they should have. On the other hand, the junta appeared to believe that after spending more than 10 years in prison, the student leaders would have no popular support from younger people and would not have the capacity to organize, and therefore they could not pose a direct threat to the regime’s power. The junta might also have hoped that the releases would gain them some praise from the international community, despite ignoring repeated international calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Soon after being freed, Min Ko Naing and his colleagues set up the ’88 Generation Students Group and tested the waters by engaging in symbolic activities. Examples included attending the NLD’s annual ceremonies, launching a letter campaign for people to express their feelings and a ‘white campaign’ in which people wore white to demonstrate their support for the release of political prisoners and political reform. In 2007, they organised a street demonstration on Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday and an event marking the day her house arrest should have expired. At this stage, the regime began to feel that the former student leaders could pose a threat to their power. Min Ko Naing and his colleagues were detained again in late 2006, right before the resumption of the National Convention, which was tasked with drafting the principles for the constitution in 1993 but finished this task only in September 2007. They were released, however, after the convention took a break in early 2007. The release could be attributed to a faction in the military that wanted to respond to increasing international pressure to release the prisoners after Burma was placed on the UN Security Council’s agenda.[9] In the August–September 2007 demonstrations, the ’88 Generation Students Group leaders and other underground activists took advantage of the intelligence gaps after the dismantling of Khin Nyunt’s military intelligence to network in secret and to mobilise the people (Hlaing 2008).

After the junta accused General Khin Nyunt and his military intelligence of being involved in corruption, it launched a series of crackdowns against corruption. Corruption has been widespread in the military, but it has also often been used as a pretext for purges. Some generals who were not sacked were believed to be more corrupt than those who were sacked. Prime Minister Soe Win, who replaced Khin Nyunt, made public announcements calling for clean government and declared that fighting corruption was one of his main missions. During the anti-corruption campaign, action was taken against most of the businessmen close to Khin Nyunt. Than Shwe wanted them to provide testimony to justify the removal of Khin Nyunt and his military intelligence faction on the grounds of corruption. High-level businessmen very close to Than Shwe, including Tay Za (Htoo Trading Company) and Nay Aung (IGE Pty Ltd and Aung Yee Phyoe Company Ltd), a son of Than Shwe’s protégé, Aung Thaung, were exempted from the anti-corruption campaign although they appeared to be more corrupt than those arrested.[10] Tay Za can be considered the only representative of Than Shwe’s family businesses and he can influence the heads of two of the country’s biggest conglomerates, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding and the Myanmar Economic Cooperation. Nay Aung has a monopoly on procurement for almost all government ministries.[11]

Then Prime Minister General Soe Win also tried to address the country’s economic problems. He encouraged the setting up of a new system to process passports, which would be quicker than the way the military intelligence had managed the process and would be free from corruption. This would make it easier for people to work abroad, which could help ease economic problems in the country by increasing the amount of remittances sent back to Burma. Soe Win also tried to bring down prices by reducing corruption. This did not work, however, because he had no control over other macro-economic measures. Later, he set up his own economic body—namely, a purchasing committee for government projects—although it was not announced publicly. This committee was to manage imports for government projects and was to be led by the Trade Minister, Tin Naing Thein, who was relatively close to Soe Win. He expected that he could reduce the corruption associated with government projects in this way. Soe Win’s family is less corrupt compared with other generals.

Using the opportunity of General Soe Win’s anti-corruption campaign, the second-highest junta leader, Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, who is considered to be a relatively less corrupt and more professional soldier than Than Shwe, attempted to pursue cases of corruption involving officers close to Than Shwe.[12] After Khin Nyunt was removed, the factional struggle between Than Shwe and Maung Aye became more apparent (Clapp 2007). He had some success in punishing middle-level officers, but not the high-level officers. The customs chief, who was close to Than Shwe’s wife, was imprisoned on corruption charges and officers under him were also imprisoned or sacked in 2006. Maung Aye, however, was not able to take action against the Home Affairs Minister, Major-General Maung Oo, despite the fact that his close friend and crony, a famous diesel tycoon, was found guilty and punished for his corrupt business practices in early 2007. It appears that Than Shwe protected Maung Oo, who was close to him. Than Shwe appeared to use Maung Oo, who also commands the police intelligence agencies (including the special branch), to balance the power of the new military intelligence branch, Military Affairs Security (MAS), under Lieutenant-General Ye Myint. Ye Myint is considered to be close to Maung Aye (Callahan 2007).

It was also impossible for Maung Aye to go against Than Shwe’s wife, although the former agriculture minister, Nyunt Tin, who was also close to Than Shwe’s wife and who was imprisoned for corruption, testified in 2005 that he had to give her bribes of jewellery, including several diamonds.[13] Than Shwe was disappointed with Nyunt Tin’s testimony, which Maung Aye also learned about. Than Shwe fainted after the testimony and stayed in bed for days, not going to his office (Jagan 2005).

General Maung Aye appeared to use his involvement in the clean-government campaign as a reason for continuing to stay in the military and not retiring. He seemed to be hoping that Than Shwe would retire because of health problems or possibly even die, giving Maung Aye a chance to replace him. (Than Shwe was hospitalised in Singapore in 2007 for chest pain, but he appeared to recover.) According to sources close to his personal doctor, Than Shwe has a heart problem and diabetes (Jagan 2008c). There have been reports that Than Shwe wants his loyalist, General Shwe Mann, the third-highest ranking junta officer, to succeed him, rather than Maung Aye. Than Shwe has already used divide-and-rule tactics between Maung Aye and Shwe Mann. It appears that Than Shwe already urged Maung Aye to retire together with him, but Maung Aye has managed to resist the suggestion so far.[14] The official retirement age for the Burmese military is sixty. Both generals are well beyond retirement age, with Than Shwe in his mid-seventies and Maung Aye in his early seventies. It appears that Maung Aye wants to remain in the military in order to pick someone loyal to him to become number one in the future. This would ensure his family’s wellbeing and security in the future.

General Than Shwe has tried to reduce the power of Maung Aye, with the aim of gradually pushing for their joint retirement. Starting from 2006, Than Shwe did not go to his office regularly, except for special meetings such as the four-monthly special operation meetings and monthly joint SPDC cabinet meetings. He also asked Maung Aye not to go to the office regularly and just attend the special meetings. Maung Aye still attended the weekly meetings of the Trade Council, of which he was the chairman until the August–September 2007 demonstrations. In August 2007, however, Than Shwe removed Maung Aye from his position as chairman of the Trade Council (Jagan 2008b). It appears that Than Shwe later let Maung Aye propose one of his men, Lieutenant-General Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo (the Quartermaster-General), as his replacement on the Trade Council.

While Maung Aye has been considered a hardliner in fighting against ethnic armies, he could be more open-minded about dealing with the NLD than Than Shwe. According to an NLD member, Maung Aye had a good conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi in one of their secret meetings.[15] In contrast, Than Shwe did not listen or talk much in that meeting. Although Maung Aye appears to believe that the military’s institutional integrity is the only important factor in holding the country together, he is seen as relatively less ambitious about becoming a political leader than Than Shwe.[16] He and his men have not been involved much in the activities of the pro-military mass organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which is expected to be transformed into a political party before the elections come. In contrast, Than Shwe initiated the USDA, and he and his men, particularly the Agriculture Minister, Major-General Htay Oo (Secretary-General of the USDA), and the Industry No. 1 Minister, Aung Thaung (secretariat member of the USDA), have been very involved in the USDA’s activities.

After the sacking of Khin Nyunt, who was considered to be relatively friendly with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN stopped defending Burma. This was due in part to international pressure and occurred despite the fact that ASEAN members traditionally did not criticise one another in public. One ASEAN member, the Philippines, even supported the United States’ call to put Burma on the UN Security Council agenda. Later, ASEAN also started publicly criticising the regime for its foot dragging regarding the constitutional convention, which was only the first step of the regime’s seven-point road-map to a political transition. China, which also considered Khin Nyunt to be a reformist, became the sole country in the region to defend Burma at international forums. China came under pressure itself to do something about Burma and pushed the junta to expedite the road-map process.

In the post-Khin Nyunt era, the top two generals have taken a different stance towards relations with foreign countries. Than Shwe visited India right after sacking Khin Nyunt, but he has not been to China since 2003. During his trip to New Delhi, he sought aid and indirect relief from Chinese pressure. Maung Aye also rarely visits China. Although he understands the importance of having Chinese backing, he seems to be less interested in a close relationship with China than Khin Nyunt (International Crisis Group 2000). This could be due to his experience fighting against the Burmese communists, who were supported by China in the past. Instead, Maung Aye has been keen to develop better ties with Russia and India. He visited Russia in 2006 and India in April 2008. China also appears to be less interested in engaging with Than Shwe and Maung Aye. After Khin Nyunt was sacked, China instead invited the third-highest ranking officer, General Shwe Mann, to meet with the Chinese Prime Minister early in 2007.

[8] According to the International Crisis Group (2006), the real reason why the Global Fund refused to fund health care in Myanmar was an objection from the Bush Administration in the United States, which was itself under pressure from Congress.

[9] Interview with a UN official from Rangoon, 23 August 2007.

[10] Interview with a businessman close to the military, 16 January 2008.

[11] Interview with a former military intelligence officer, 20 April 2008.

[12] Interview with a former Burmese diplomat, 30 March 2008.

[13] Personal interview with a former military intelligence officer, 15 December 2006.

[14] Personal interview with a businessman close to the generals, 20 March 2007.

[15] Interview with an NLD member who was close to senior NLD leaders, 15 September 2005.

[16] Interview with a former military intelligence officer, 1 November 2007.